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The Rock Rambo: A “Tough Mudder” For Climbers

Any wannabe badass worth his weight in Andro knows about the Tough Mudder races. But why should the dirt donkeys and quagmire queens have all the fun? Can’t we climbers get in on the masochistic action too?

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Illustration by Dushan Milic.

Any wannabe badass worth his weight in Andro knows about the Tough Mudder races. Designed by members of the British Special Forces, these popular obstacle-course events dole out suffering by the muddy, sloshy, electrified gallon. Scores of giddy, over-muscled, Red Bull–infused mouth-breathers, only 78 percent of whom finish the event, take on things like the Arctic Enema, in which they must swim through ice water; the Dong Dangler, a slippery trudge through frigid mud; and Electroshock Therapy, in which they sprint through dangling live wires carrying up to 10,000 volts. And so on with endless such silliness: it’s all quite brutal and macho in a perfectly avoidable, way-too-much-leisure-time First World sort of way.

Contestants have been maimed, mauled and even killed, which is perhaps how they like it—better bragging rights down at the pub. There have been a drowning, and injuries ranging from burns to seizures to an inflamed heart muscle to “altered mental status” to dehydration to rhabdomyolysis (in which your overtaxed muscles disintegrate, releasing a protein into your bloodstream that then poisons your kidneys—wheee!).

If you don’t crawl off the course drooling, broken, insensible and covered in your own filth, or aren’t carted away in a body bag or on a gurney, it seems you simply aren’t trying.

But why should the dirt donkeys and quagmire queens have all the fun? Can’t we climbers get in on the masochistic action too? While we had the recent Psicobloc Masters Competition in Park City, Utah, last summer, nobody got hurt—at least, not hurt enough for prime time. Even smacking the Olympic Park’s freestyle aerial training pool from 50 feet did little more than bruise competitors’ egos. Which is why there needs to be a Tough Mudder for climbers. Sure, we get battered and killed at the cliffs all the time, but this new commercial event would provide a way to do so systematically, with the added elements of sex, humiliation and violence, all before a bloodthirsty and paying audience. If climbing is ever to go mainstream, this is our big chance.

I propose we call it the Rock Rambo©, an Extreme Comp for Extreme Crag-thletes™. Here’s a look at the obstacles along the Rock Rambo© course, custom designed to re-create the true climbing experience and to—like a Supertopo-forum debate about retro-bolting some obscure Sierra slab—separate out the “real climbers” from the “pussies.”

The Slab-Anator

Our course begins with The Slabanator, a callback to the purer, simpler, more manful days of yore, before “clamp-stickers” and “iTurds” with their “pebble-raping” and “scorepoints” turned the sport into a soulless three-ring circus. After you race uphill toward the obstacle’s sunbaked apron of 70-degree granite, you can select from one of our three certified belayers.

Despite their innocuous names and modest grades, all are secret-sandbag 5.11+++ X, featuring 30-foot runouts between spinner bolts with rusty Leeper hangers and no mention that none have gone free. Ever.

First up is “High Alpine” Jerry. With his bushy beard, pendulous beer
gut, and tatty Whillans harness, Jerry is happy to give you a hip belay with an oval-biner redirect, just like on Kangchenjunga in 1974. Then there’s
Steven Z., a tall, gangly engineer-type with Coke-bottle glasses who vibrates a little, has read every how-to book ever written, and is no slouch with a Tuber, unless you happen to want slack while clipping. And finally there’s “Loco Larry,” who might or might not have just dropped that purple microdot he found in his painter’s pants and who now seems to have his harness on backward. If you can get him to set down that fatty joint and tall boy of PBR, he’s solid gold, brother!

Now choose from one of three routes: Left Wall (5.8+), Center Line (5.9-) and Right Wall (5.9+). Despite their innocuous names and modest grades, all are secret-sandbag 5.11+++ X, featuring 30-foot runouts between spinner bolts with rusty Leeper hangers and no mention that on the first ascent, lost to the sands of time, the FA party, after extensive toproping, rested on every clip, stood on the hangers, rested on hooks between bolts, and used a filed-down #3 RP in that invisible seam up top to protect the 5.10+ X mantel to the belay, where you will find a half-drooping pin and a buttonhead with a bedframe hanger “equalized” using a faded American Death Triangle.

Also, none of the routes have seen an ascent in 30 years and so have grown over with moss. But never mind that: Today is your day. Up and over, youth! Let’s see what you’re made of—this is proper rock climbing, just like it used to be.

Pigeon Crack

Stagger across the gully to your next obstacle, Pigeon Crack (5.8+), a route that would be considered a four-star classic in the Gunks, Eldorado
Canyon or any other local shatter-pile that climbers have somehow tricked themselves into believing is “classic.” This enormous detached flake measures only 2 feet thick by 10 feet wide at its base, where it sits embedded in pigeon and deer-mouse droppings on a downsloping ledge over a fanged talus field. Eighty feet high, overhanging, and with a serrated edge, Pigeon Crack is home to thousands of eponymous pigeons, swifts, swallows, and even a few dozen rabid bats.

Bang on the flake to test its integrity; hear the boom as if the cliff itself were poised to collapse. Now inhale deeply the fine aroma wafting
from the depths, that heady brew of hantavirus-laden mouse urine, toxic guano, and yet-uncategorized bird flu. Wipe the feathers and funk from your shoes and start up, climbing slowly and methodically. And remember: 1) Pull down, not out, and 2) this is a free-solo event, and you never know what’s going to fly from the crack and thwack you in the chest.

Tesla Spires

Next, skip over to the Tesla Spires, a stegosaurus spine of aiguilles trés, trés magnifiques along a thousand-foot double-exposed knife edge.
We’ve cooked up a man-made “alpine” super-storm by running 10 million volts of electricity between converter substations at either end of the ridge. Lightning rods on the spires link the current. Feel the granite spark and sizzle under your fingernails; thrill to the smell of burning flesh as your inner thighs contact the rock on our patented Third-Class Ledge Shuffle™.

Which way will that arcing blue current leap next? Dare you top out that gendarme in order to get around it, or would it be better to descend off the ridge to avoid being atomized? It’s your call, but the race clock is ticking, other competitors are hot on your heels, and a band of merry munchkins up ahead is pouring graupel by the bucketful over the stone, so it’s best to arrive before things get too hairball.

Redneck Bluffs

Drop down into the valley for an urban experience at Redneck Bluffs, a sheisty roadside choss-heap known to rock climbers and cross-eyed local down-ropers alike. The goal is to complete one sport route and lower off. Simple enough, right?

Well, as you climb, you will have to deal with: crew-cut paramilitary sport rappellers dropping in from above, bounding down the cliff Australian-style and trundling errant stones while they holler, “WHOOOOO!”; alcohol- and psychedelic-addled freehanding heshers off to the side rolling more
rocks, if not themselves, down scrappy fourth-class gullies toward your belayer; and missing, flattened, or shot-out hangers and pilfered anchor hardware in the graffiti-coated, bullet-hole-riddled rock. Broken glass, old mattresses, busted refrigerators, dirty diapers and used condoms litter the staging area. Meanwhile, as a sonic backdrop, skeevy gangbanger boomcars and jacked-up hillbilly pickups (blaring Kid Rock) pull into the parking lot, their occupants yelling, “There’s an easier way to the top, faggot!” and brandishing semiautomatic weapons.

Finally, be aware that Pavel, Vlad and Dmitri, members of a Russian theft ring, are lurking in the talus, waiting to abscond with your backpack and/or wallet the minute you turn your head. Oh, and also, all the routes are greasy and/or coated in dust from the eroding crag top, have rotting fixed draws, and are “poorly/mainly chipped.” Under these conditions, even the toughest competitor will be hard-pressed to send climbs two numbers below his limit.

N00b Alley

Next set your sights on n00b Alley, a tight corridor of fresh, gym-bolted 5.9 and 5.10 sport climbs. Your goal is simple: to walk from one end of the alley to the other in five minutes, a distance of only 100 yards. But, hey, it’s not going to be easy!

Well, as you climb, you will have to deal with: crew-cut paramilitary sport rappellers dropping in from above, bounding down the cliff Australian-style and trundling errant stones while they holler, “WHOOOOO!”

Along the way you must pick your way through snarling off-leash dogs
(“Denali, leave it! Nali, come! Nallers, GET THE FUCK OVER HERE!”); screaming red-faced babies in carryalls plunked down right in
the trail; unattended children with semi-dangling helmets roving in savage little Lord of the Flies tribes through rockfall zones; clamorous
school groups, youth groups and climbing clubs clustered by the vanload around rope-festooned toprope slabs; and crag pack after crag pack with its contents yard-saled across the path.

As a further challenge, you also must stop to correct any climbers you see engaging in unsafe practices: None of these n00bs can die on your watch! See that shirtless, tattooed guy about to slap the Botox-lips off his stripper girlfriend because she threaded the Grigri backwards her first time ever belaying and dropped him from the second clip? Better intervene. Or how about those frat boys hollering up anchor-threading instructions to a terrified sorority sister pinned at the belay? Can’t let her die, either! And what about that barefoot hippie about to take off on his first lead with the rope tied through a gear loop, quickdraws with the price tags still on jammed into his chalk bag, and his stoned belayer snoozing in a lawn chair 20 feet back? Or that cat with the trucker’s hat, toe shoes and Salvador Dali moustache gleefully taking sport whippers on a ledge-fall slab? They need your help, too.

With only five minutes to use and so many obstacles to negotiate, you are going to find it tough. Moreover, there’s one final rule: You cannot accept,
“I’ve got this, bro,” from any of the n00bs. If they deck, you’re disqualified, plus must spend the rest of the day organizing a rescue.

The Sack Wrangler

A true rock warrior can climb hard all day and sex hard all night. We’ve simulated a typical climber tent-city in a dusty, windswept gravel lot at the end of a dead-end road ($3 per night; don’t forget to pay the chain-smoking, tracksuit-wearing, climber-hating camp host!), complete with an overflowing dumpster, fragrant outhouse with no toilet paper, and a smoldering fire combusting purloined toxic grocery-store palettes, around which some bearded alt-college dropout with a ukulele improvises climbing-themed folk songs and char-faced ragamuffins in puffy jackets with duct-tape elbow patches pass about a masonry jar of homebrew.

Ah, how romantic, to be young and free again, out under the stars.

Lure your romantic partner from amidst this citizenry by talking up your climbing résumé, and then lead him or her back to your tent. There, you cannot plead that you’re “saving it for the redpoint.” You cannot say, “Oh, all right, I guess so, but you’re on top.” And you cannot propose, “What if we just cuddle and talk about the beta on my proj?” You must instead be an engaged and vigorous lover, even in a cold, rustling tent three feet from your neighbors’ campsite, on a half-deflated Therm-a-Rest under a matted old sleeping bag that smells of sweat, crag dust and 17 years of accumulated energy-bar farts. A course timer will make sure you prevail for at least 20 minutes. Should you fail to do this, you must return to the campfire, attract another partner, and start the courtship all over again.

The Hunger Games

By now you’ve worked up an appetite. Time to chow down! What’s that you say? You brought your own healthy snacks?

A race monitor will confiscate your rice cakes, steamed spinach, organic turkey-breast sliver, baggie of baby carrots, chewing gum and eCigarettes, and replace them with onion rings, a Philly cheese-steak sandwich, a milk shake, and Hostess donuts. You have 10 minutes to get it all down and are not allowed to run off into the bushes to throw up, nor to ingest handfuls of laxatives. Also, as you eat you must sit at a table full of fellow climbers,
all just slightly skinnier than yourself, who will cast the occasional sideways glance of disapprobation upon your bacchanal and discuss beta on routes one letter grade above your hardest redpoint.

The Girlfriend-Belay Headwall

Finally, we come to our most deadly and difficult obstacle: the Girlfriend-Belay Headwall (or Boyfriend-Belay Headwall, for you ladies). Here awaits your mate—happy, grinning and ready to belay you on your project, Grigri in hand. Never mind that she has never used a Grigri and is more comfortable with that Sticht plate they taught her to use down at the rec center—you have 20 seconds to line her out before you start climbing. And never mind that the route, a series of stair-stepping roofs with each clip under each subsequent ceiling, is the hardest redpoint of your life.

Sally Shortrope has got you! In fact, she’s got you good, on a nice, tight rope so you don’t “fall too far” because “I don’t want you to get hurt, honey!”

Sally is just concerned for your safety, so you, my friend, aren’t allowed to get angry, even if she careers you into the rock and compound-fractures both your ankles. Oh, and remember The Sack Wrangler section you just completed? We told her about that. Good luck.

Matt Samet is the author of the Crag Survival Handbook, published by The Mountaineers Books in autumn 2013. This article appeared in Ascent
2014 (Rock and Ice issue number 218).